ECOT's Sudden Closure Leaves Students And Teachers Asking 'What's Next?'

Jan 24, 2018

“School’s just never felt right to me since I was in Kindergarten,” said 18-year-old Abbey Lopez, laughing.

She sits around her New Albany dining room table with her mom, Jennifer, and her dad Chris.

“It’s just never been my place,” Lopez says.

ECOT – the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow – closed Friday, leaving nearly 12,000 students without a school. That’s forced students, parents and teachers to try to figure out what to do next.

A judge has appointed a special master to oversee the assets of ECOT until the Ohio Supreme Court can decide its case over student enrollment, possibly as soon as next month. In that case, Ohio education officials say the online charter school owes the state $80 million after ECOT embellished its enrollment numbers, but the school contends it shouldn’t have to pay the money back after the state improperly changed the reporting criteria.

Abbey’s Story

Lopez is your average high school senior. She admits she has trouble waking up in the morning and she’d rather hang out with her friends than study, but even with those typical teenage distractions, Lopez says school is hard for her.

She spent two and a half years at New Albany High School, where sometimes her classes just moved too fast. She says she hated jumping from one subject to another to another in a seven-period day, and Abbey’s mom said she could see it was giving her daughter anxiety.

“I would pick you up from school, and sometimes she was crying,” Jennifer Lopez says, addressing her daughter at first. “She’d get in the car and she’d be a little tearful.”

So last year, Abbey’s parents enrolled her in ECOT. Abbey said she could, and often did, spend an entire day on one subject. She interacted with her teachers one-on-one, over the phone or through email, and wasn’t embarrassed to ask for help.

“It’s always made me feel dumb, to be honest,” she said of her traditional brick-and-mortar school, “and ECOT made me realize how smart I am.”

This semester, Abbey finished her pre-calculus course weeks early because she said she just needs to work on her own, without distractions.

Who Is An ECOT Student?

ECOT’s supervisor of student wellbeing, Danielle Hier of Kent, said the school catered to children facing a variety of challenges, kids like Abby who don’t feel comfortable in a traditional setting, but it appealed to others too.

“Whether its physical resources to get them to the classroom at a brick-and-mortar school, the logistics of doing so, clothing them, bullying,” Hier said.

Some students have children of their own, or severe physical disabilities, she said, but ECOT put them all on an equal playing field.

“They’re behind a wall, a screen, so their guard is dropped. They’re more relaxed. Those type of situations help these kind of kids,” she added.

After two audits, the Ohio Department of Education said ECOT inflated its enrollment numbers and overbilled the state by some $80 million over the 2015 and 2016 academic years. This school year, the department cut ECOT’s monthly payments by $3 million as a way to recoup that money.

Sheri Dornhecker, an ECOT English teacher, rushed Friday to finish her final grades.
Credit Ashton Marra / ideastream

ECOT has contested the claims in court, but school officials announced in the fall the decreased payments were depleting its savings and ECOT would close in early 2018. The school has asked the Ohio Supreme Court to step in, but justices have refused so far, and last week ECOT’s charter sponsor voted to pull its support, closing its doors.

That left teachers like Sheri Dornhecker scrambling on Friday.

“When I woke up this morning, there were 301 assignments in there,” Sheri Dornhecker of Bolivar said as she looked at her inbox.

A senior English teacher—Abby’s English teacher—Dornhecker finalized her grades in a couple of hours so students could get their transcripts and enroll in new schools this week. Dornhecker said she was angry when she got the final word of ECOT’s closure Thursday night.

“What did you accomplish?” she asked, pointing her anger to the state Department of Education. “You closed us down. You sent 12,000 kids out the door and now we have 800 people unemployed.”

Dornhecker retired from Ohio’s public school system after more than 30 years in a traditional classroom, but her ECOT salary is 40 percent of her current income, an income her family relies on.

“I mean, we have [student] loans that are so big, you know, for both kids,” she said.

Next Steps

Dornhecker is looking for a job at another online school. She said she won’t return to a traditional classroom.

With four kids ranging in age from 11 to 17, Danielle Hier is looking for work too, crossing her fingers for an opening she found at Akron’s I Promise School—sponsored by Cavs star Lebron James—that will open in the fall.

Lopez will finish the school year at New Albany High School. She needs two more credits, but with acceptance letters to a couple of colleges already, and possibly more on the way, she said she has the motivation to finish but knows other students won’t have it as easy.

Hollie Nesbitt said that includes her 15-year-old daughter Bria.

Bria won’t go back to her Cincinnati public school, Nesbitt said. She explained her daughter learns at a slower pace than her peers and is extremely shy. The combination resulted in Bria’s academic struggles, unable to keep up with her classmates and terrified to ask for help.

Over the weekend, Nesbitt started enrolling Bria in another online school, but in the end, has decided that home schooling is the best option for now. Aside from figuring out their next step academically, Nesbitt has had to help Bria transition emotionally as well.

“She feels abandoned,” Nesbitt said. “That can be really devastating for children.”

“That’s something that I would love the Ohio Department of Education to really look at is how this is effecting children,” she added. “This school was really important to them. For a lot of these kids, this was the school that was their team, their support group, their second family.”

Lopez said she feels for kids like Bria who won’t have the same option that helped her succeed. Lopez said the state, the Department of Education, the courts, they aren’t listening – and the school’s closure proves that.

“If they understood even 1 percent of why we go there, then they would know how much it helps people like me, and there’s no way they could do that,” she said.

The Ohio Supreme Court will hear the next set of arguments in ECOT’s case February 13 in Columbus.